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Why do tragic photos become iconic?

Editor’s Note: A photo of Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old boy who drowned while trying to escape the Syrian war with his family, became a powerful symbol of the human toll the war has taken. The photo, taken by Nilüfer Demir of the Turkish news organization Dogan News Agency, has been compared to other well-known images, such as those from the Vietnam War, that have come to define global conflicts in the public memory. We asked National Geographic photographer Tyrone Turner how and why certain images come to represent a larger conflict. He tells us below.

There are pictures in our collective memories — Nick Ut’s picture of the Napalm Girl from Vietnam, Eddie Adams’ picture of the officer shooting the [Vietcong officer], the person in front of the tank in China, or the firefighter with the baby from the Oklahoma City [bombing] — these pictures become iconic. They’re all powerful pictures, but … there are a tremendous amount of really powerful photos out there. Why do some get elevated to icon status?

I looked at [the Syrian boy] and my heart just bled. I was so sad, as a person, as a father. Is it powerful enough that it kind of cuts through all the other conversations and just becomes elevated to really speak to us on a very universal level? I think that that’s what happens. And as a photographer, I think it’s really not something that you can shoot for. You shoot for powerful storytelling, you go do your best job, and whether or not any of your photos becomes elevated like that is not really within your control

In terms of crisis pictures, I think it’s this clarity of what the picture is about, the clarity of the struggle that’s happening. It clarifies the issue in a way that is undeniable and very, very powerful. I think about the firefighter wth the baby from Oklahoma City, and it’s probably cropped in really far. It’s not always a technical thing. The emotion trumps technicality in a lot of ways. With the Napalm Girl, that kind of a photograph is very powerful, very uncluttered compositionally, and it just hits you. I think it’s this clarity of emotion and composition, it just becomes a very powerful statement. it’s undeniable.

Tyrone Turner is a photographer for National Geographic. Having grown up in New Orleans, he photographed the area’s rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina. 

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